An earthy blend of sex, commerce, desire and despair is concocted nightly in Tijuana’s clubs and dance halls, according to the newest body of work by local artist Raul Guerrero. The milieu that Guerrero defines in his paintings and drawings now on view at the David Zapf Gallery (2400 Kettner Blvd., through Feb. 23), is, indeed, gritty, but also otherworldly and fantastic, a realm of extremes and escapism.
“Aspectos de la Vida Nocturna en Tijuana B.C.” (Aspects of the Night Life in Tijuana B.C.)” is an engrossing, difficult show. Guerrero’s intense, jarring palette and his fluid painting style are easy to savor, but his subjects are often harder to swallow. Women perform nude on stage, subject to the groping hands of the club’s male patrons. Others dance for a price, but not necessarily with a smile. And men collapse on the bar after too many beers.
The psychological and sociological dynamics of these situations are not easy for the outsider to discern, but they begin to reveal themselves in Guerrero’s larger, more complex works.
In “Club Guadalajara de Noche,” for instance, scenarios of bought and real affection are played out across 14 feet of canvas. At the bar area, on the right, a man carrying a stack of hats for sale and two seated women display their wares with equal, casual candor. Guerrero paints both of the women in electric colors, with red and purple hair, their skin glowing green and blue.
On the dance floor across from them, couples move beneath a canopy of colored balloons and confetti. Several women, at nearby tables, wear the glazed, disengaged stare that comes with doing tedious work, while others seem fully, willingly in sync with their partners. The painting scans a panorama of emotions, within a stunningly rich range of colors.
Another, smaller painting, “Group of People in Molino Rojo,” has the same sweeping, narrative feel to it. Here, a cluster of women is flanked by two young men looking hungrily about. The impact of the entire painting hangs, effectively, on the expression of one woman, who stands in the center with a cigarette in one hand, and her other arm folded across her chest. Her face, half a warm chestnut color and half a cool, smoky blue, exudes boredom, resignation, perhaps even disdain for her situation. As those around her act, she reflects, and for a moment, Guerrero has caught her soul.
Unfortunately, not all of the works in this show sustain this level of energy, tension and complexity. Several paintings focus on a single subject or isolated vignette, such as a nude dancer or a man reaching beneath a woman’s dress as she sits on his table. These, too, Guerrero paints with a racy, searing palette, but they never come alive like the more fleshed out panoramas for the simple--however quibbling--reason that the artist has painted these men and women with their eyes shut.
Despite the extremity of their actions, the closed eyes deny all access to these characters’ spirit, their mood, their intentions. Though this may be part of Guerrero’s strategy to describe a mode of survival under harsh conditions, ultimately, it makes the artist’s own perspective feel neutralized and evasive.
In Guerrero’s last body of work, his subject is the Italian city of Venice, painting it though the filter of history, legend and myth that has come to define it. In the Tijuana series, the artist relies entirely on direct observation rather than received information. At its best, “Aspectos de la Vida Nocturna” is a penetrating journey into an unfamiliar scene, through the web of needs, hopes and satisfactions that attract people to it.
The artist’s next destination is Iowa. Whatever impressions his keen eyes and fluid brush bring back are eagerly awaited.
PUBLIC ART MEETING: The City Commission for Arts and Culture will hold its first public art community meeting tonight in Mission Hills. Gail Goldman, the Commission’s Public Art Coordinator, will discuss the city’s public art master plan and its goal of enhancing public spaces with commissioned art work. Mission Hills is one of ten communities participating in the program. The meeting begins at 6:30 at the Wells Fargo Bank (formerly Great American) at 925 Ft. Stockton Drive.
LOCAL ARTISTS: San Diego sculptor Ann Mudge is represented in a three-person show at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Ana, through Feb. 8. Mudge’s work in fiber, metal and plaster was recently seen in the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Satellite Intelligence” show of work by Boston and San Diego artists.
Max DeMoss, whose figurative bronze sculptures address themes from the biblical to the topical, will be featured in a show at the Wenger Gallery in Los Angeles, from Feb. 2 through March 13.